M.C. from Middlesex County writes:
Dear Mister Condo,
Our trustee just sold her unit making me the new trustee. After she left, I found out one of the Unit owners wasn’t paying their HOA fees and that the former trustee had used funds I put in the Reserve Fund for my share of assessments to front for them. We were about to hold off on a planned assessment because of this when the city slapped us with a fine so now we have to move forward or rack up more fines! I asked a lawyer for a consultation hoping he could give us some advice on how to proceed and he practically laughed me off the phone saying the situation wasn’t worth a lawyer. But the unit owners still aren’t paying and the city is expecting us to move forward with the assessment! What do we do?
Mister Condo replies:
M.C., for starters, you get a new lawyer! I don’t know of any lawyer committed to community association law that would “laugh you off the phone” for such a potentially serious and clearly legal matter. You have three very separate matters to attend to here. The city slapping you with a fine is likely your biggest fish to fry. Get your association in compliance with the city so no further fines result. The city likely has powers to make your life quite uncomfortable depending on the nature of the offense. If they find your buildings are uninhabitable due to a safety issue, they could actually forbid people from living in your units. You certainly don’t want that and I am hoping that the fine is for something easily remedied. If a Special Assessment is needed to bring the association into compliance with the city’s requirements, it may be time to levy that assessment. Be sure you do so in accordance with your association’s governance documents and state law. Second, you need to take legal action against the unit owner in arrears as allowed by your governing documents. Typically, this is the work of an attorney or collection agency. Do not take matters into your own hands. Collections is a delicate and legal process best handled by professionals. Collection efforts may even lead to a foreclosure action by the association against the unit owner in arrears. This is not a matter to be taken lightly. Finally, the previous Trustee has acted inappropriately and, perhaps, even illegally. The decision to let another unit owner to forego paying assessments was very likely outside the scope of their authority. At the very least, it was a dereliction of duty. An attorney can best advise you if it is worth seeking criminal or civil charges against the previous trustee in an attempt to collect the delinquent common fees. Once you get all of these problems behind you, M.C., you can focus on running the association like a business, as it was intended to be. Good luck!